Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Nation's Hope

There are some books we hear about all year long because they've been written by a famous author or illustrator.  There are some books we hear about all year long because they are quirky or are just plain enjoyable.  And there are some books that are mentioned all year long because they are just plain fabulous.  And A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis is just plain fabulous.  As an example of its fabulosity, it was just this week named one of the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Books of 2011.  It is also a Cybils Non-Fiction Picture Book Nominee, which is why I am reviewing it here.

Full disclosure:  I looked for A Nation's Hope at my public library this summer after hearing its buzz.  The book's status was checked in, but after I put it on hold the library quickly determined that it was lost.  I tweeted about my frustration, and Matt de la Pena did tweet back that he would hunt down the thief for me!  Also, there is a San Diego connection between de la Pena, Nelson and myself - we all at least attended high school there, and Kadir lives there now.  Just some fun facts before I dive into my review...I love how connected we can be with social media!

De la Pena opens this story at Yankee Stadium in 1938.  It is in the middle of the action - the crowd is buzzing and full of excitement.  The crowd is waiting for Joe Louis to fight German Max Schmeling, as we learn in subsequent pages.  This could be confusing for readers who don't know much about Joe Louis and his history.  But it works in this case because de la Pena helps readers cue in to the high energy and excitement.  This sucks readers into this moment in time.  We want to read on and find out why everyone is waiting for this fight to start.  De la Pena balances the tension of the fight (which is billed as the United States against the Nazis) with the story of Joe Louis' life.
There is a lot of weight on Louis' shoulders as he waits to fight - the "weight of history", the weight of the nation's need for him to win, to show Germany their power, the weight of the underdog, the weight of being black in America.  As we examine Joe Louis' life, we see that he also staggered under the weight of other people's expectations (his mother expected him to be a musician) and he also worked through the weight of defeat - working harder and harder every time he lost as an amateur.  What Joe Louis carried on his shoulders was the weight of learning - he learned from every experience and came out of it a better fighter.
De la Pena uses a free verse style to draw readers through the dual stories.  In this style he can give the important facts, the important feelings of the fight without getting weighed down.  He creates a successful mix of sportswriting, biography, poetry and informational text.  Readers will get the historical context while feeling like they are there, waiting for the bell to ring.
There is a good reason why this was named one of the New York Times' 2011 Best Illustrated Children's Books.  Nelson's oils on wood are simply amazing.  One of the most spectacular things he does in this book is his work on black backgrounds.  You would think that the black background would be unmanageable, that it would be difficult to paint light images onto the dark background, but in fact the opposite is true.  The darkness of the background just serves to emphasize the light in the rest of the painting.  One double-page spread is a closeup of Louis' arms and hands in boxing gloves.  His arms glow with sweat and hard work, veins and muscles delineated.  The black background only makes the light source warmer.  The same is true for a painting at the beginning of the fight.  Nelson does the unbelievable, making the lights (which are also black, but give off warm yellow light) stand out from the rest of the dark shadows of the stadium.  Most paintings where Louis is featured are from a perspective slightly below him.  This always makes him look like the hero he was and is.  The art is astonishing.
Now that's not to say that I think this is a perfect book, but it's pretty darn close.  I really missed the back matter for this title.  Because de la Pena's text is so spare and taut, I think that there could have been a bibliography of other recommended titles or source notes.  I would have liked to see notes from the author and illustrator, describing their process or maybe the sources they used to create this portrait of Joe Louis.  I would have even liked to see some other biographical information about Louis - his fight record or when he retired.  All of these, I believe, would help students use this book as a springboard for more research.  But these things don't stand in the way of a great piece of sportswriting at a perilous time in history.  Please take a look at it.  I know you'll be moved by this powerful story.

Note: I am on the Cybils Nonfiction Picture Book panel, but this blog post does not represent the committee's thoughts about the book.  It only represents my ideas and thoughts.
 A Nation's Hope: The Story of Boxing Legend Joe Louis. Matt de la Pena; illustrated by Kadir Nelson.  Dial Books for Young Readers, 2011.

borrowed from Helena School District

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